Draw Your Ancestors

1. Classroom Faces

At the start of this school year, I moved into a new classroom and had a new, big, blank cinder-block wall to fill. So I used one of those giant printers to print out life-sized and larger-than-life photos of a few American literary icons, and I arranged their faces into a huge collage:

Your Words Can Change the World
(Left to right, this is Eudora Welty, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Walt Whitman, Flannery O’Connor, and Toni Morrison.)

I think of it as a (partial!) Mount Rushmore of American writing, a wall of literary ancestors. Their job is to remind us that our words, too, can change the world.

Over the course of my Creative Writing course, we’ll read at least a little something by most of these writers, and sooner or later we’ll talk — at least a little — about the rest. To be sure, it’s a subjective and incomplete wall of ancestors, filtering the “canon” through my own biases and tastes, but it’s a start. (I keep in the hollow space of my podium a huge, rolled up head of Kurt Vonnegut, whose impish sidelong glance I just couldn’t fit, physically, anywhere into that puzzle of faces. Later I may create a second line-up on another wall; in the meantime, when Vonnegut comes up in discussion, I can whip out and unfurl his image.)

2. Student Drawings

Especially because Creative Writing happens to be the first period of the day — and because I think some “mindless” drawing can awaken some playful, spontaneous, unpredictable part of the brain — I sometimes like to start the class by asking students to draw for five or six minutes. I’ve asked them to reserve the first three pages of their Creative Writing notebooks for these start-of-class drawings and doodles, so that by the end of the year those pages will be crammed with all sorts of images — images which will serve as untamed and untranslatable intro to all the words that will follow. Of course, half the class complains that they “can’t draw,” which is the real point (it turns out, they can). But because they only have five minutes for the drawings, the perfectionists have to abandon perfectionism and the slow-to-starters have to jump in, ready or not. There’s no time to think, and everybody is equal.

I started the year’s drawing times by having students choose one of the big literary faces on the wall and try, quickly, to draw it. At the start of the year, they’re likely to know something about one or two of these writers — probably Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes — but the rest, so far, are strangers to them. Ultimately you have to choose your own creative ancestors, and I know my students haven’t chosen these particular writers as theirs. But that’s part of what I like about these first drawing activities: I tell them to just choose whichever face stands out or interests them the most, and spend a few minutes with it. Maybe later a voice or a meaning, or some historical weight or baggage, will attach itself to the face and the drawing. But for now you’re just moving your pencil or pen across a sheet of paper, waking up your brain.

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Later on, students will add to the same three pages their own self portraits — and self portraits of themselves as superheroes or supervillains — and they’ll look up pictures of their own creative heroes and their own creative ancestors and draw their faces, too. The ones on the wall are just our starting point, and I absolutely adore the results:

Another reason I like starting with the same limited group of faces, before students branch out into their own, is because I love the variation you get from a few repeated, recognizable images. Each Gertrude Stein reflects its drawer’s personality above all; the result is part Gertrude Stein and mostly that student. No two Gertrude Steins are alike — but they’re just enough alike to make those differences magical.

You can see a few of the students’ own heroes and ancestors mixed in among these sample drawings; I’ll post some more later on in the year. (One day I gave them the option of drawing anything in the room. A student in my film class had recently brought in a wonderful, creepy E.T. mask that her father had made her, out of felt, years ago, as a Halloween costume; it was still hanging on a hook in the front of the room, which is why you see that E.T. There are a couple of stuffed Kermit the Frogs on my bookshelf, too.)

So:

3. Your Turn

Here’s an assignment, if you want one. I recommend starting your day with this, to warm yourself up — if not first thing in the morning, then right before you begin the most productive part of your workday. Take about five minutes to draw one of your own creative heroes or ancestors (a writer, artist, musician, filmmaker, comedian, teacher, lawyer, whatever — maybe choose somebody you admire from your own line of work, someone whose example reminds you why you do what you do).

Keep it to about five minutes. That way it’s not a huge time commitment, and it takes the pressure off: you can’t expect it to be super-accurate, and you can’t worry about whether it’s “good.”

When your five-ish minutes is up, look back upon your creation. Don’t ball it up or throw it away. Take a picture or scan it, and send me a copy (burgin@bhammountainradio.com). Then put the original on your refrigerator or over your desk, or leave it in a public space for a stranger to find.

Here’s an idea, if you want to really go all-in: get a notebook just for this. Spend five minutes doing this, every day for 30 days — or, if you like, for 365 days. Set a goal and keep it up. Create a diary of five-minute faces, a one-of-a-kind, homemade, ever-growing book of ancestors. Occasionally send me pictures (again: burgin@bhammountainradio.com).

Or, finally, an alternate assignment, if you prefer the mystery of losing yourself in a stranger’s face: Google “Czech authors” or “Ugandan authors” or “Indian” or “Hungarian authors” (someplace whose literacy ancestry is unknown to you). Choose the face that most arrests you, and spend five minutes drawing it. Be sure to write the author’s name beside, around, or under the drawing, and maybe (quickly) add to that a book title, birthdate, or fun fact, whatever you get when you click that person’s picture.

I am certain that you will create something magical that otherwise would never have existed. Give it five minutes and see.

P. S. This week I got my hands on the new book by Lynda Barry, Making Comics, and it’s wonderful, offering many of Barry’s own exercises to draw your way into unexpected and extraordinary, imaginative places. Don’t let the title fool you: her book isn’t for aspiring comics artists (although those people should get it, too), nearly so much as it is for the rest of us — especially those of us who quit drawing pictures around the same time we stopped being kids.

P. P. S. Here are a few of my favorite things from the drawings above: Langston Hughes at an enormous, blank typewriter; all the Toni Morrisons; the bored, tired, or mildly annoyed Whitmans; “powerful.” Also this truth: that sometimes when you’re drawing, your pencil produces something your brain didn’t mean or want (a “mistake”) and you just have to run with and reclaim it. So Zora Neale Hurston becomes “Evil Zora Neale Hurston” — which is pretty wonderful in itself.

Don’t forget to send me your drawings! Thanks for reading.

The School Week (highlights)

In a lot of ways, the school year that’s wrapping up now has been an especially frustrating one. But several moments this week have reminded me of what I like most about this job. For what it’s worth:

1. My first period Creative Writing students have been writing some extraordinary, inspiring words lately–and a group of them have started performing their poetry out loud in some really powerful ways. We’ve snuck off for the last couple of weeks to a little room off the back of the library, and while nobody else is looking they’ve been doing the most amazing things.

2. The same group has been goofily experimenting with various approaches to reading other people’s poetry out loud. The goal has been to get us thinking about the limitless ways in which our voices and our bodies can interact with the spoken word–whether enhancing, complicating, or undercutting the meaning of a text. Earlier this week we were seated around a big glass-topped conference table, and one student walked across the top of it in his socks while reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Constantly Risking Absurdity.” I was surprised how much this very literal approach to the poem–in which a poet is compared to an acrobat–actually managed to reshape my experience of Ferlinghetti’s words, which I’ve read many times. Lines like “…whenever he performs / above the heads / of his audience…” feel different when the poet is actually performing above the heads of his audience; the same goes for “balancing on eyebeams” and “paces his way / to the other side”–and all the other lines. And then there was this: we were all a little terrified the whole time that the table would break. Both the performer and the audience were physically engaged in a way I hadn’t expected: just as if they were watching a tightrope walker or acrobat, students around the table were holding their breath or clenching their teeth until the poem was over. Some where leaning in; others were leaning out. It was pretty special.

Luckily the table did not break.

3. Same class: a group of students read Charles Bukowski’s “The Laughing Heart” as if they were reading it to their dogs–in those funny, high-pitched voices people use just for addressing their pets. There is something hilarious about “You can’t beat death / but you can beat death in life, sometimes” when it’s read in a “You’re a good boy, yes you are” voice. (If you don’t believe me, try it.)

4. Another student read “The Laughing Heart” as if he was being slapped in the face with every word. And then, a second time, as if he was being tickled.

5. Two students read an excerpt from Green Eggs and Ham with such genuine drama that the class demanded they finish the rest of the book, so we’d know how it turned out.

6. Meanwhile, in my twelfth grade English class, we had some leeway in the end of our year, so I decided for the first time to throw The Catcher in the Rye into the mix. The first large chunk of it was due today. Luckily, the students are into it so far, and it’s a very refreshing change of pace from everything else that class has read this year. I know there are a lot of people out there who don’t like this book–or think it’s overrated, or whatever–but I don’t need to hear it. (My students are welcome to tell me they don’t like it–I just don’t want a bunch of haters chiming in in the comments below.) I liked the book fine when I first read it in high school, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me. I remember the wisdom was that if you’re going to read this book, you need to read it while you’re still in high school, because the older you get the less it will resonate. I assumed that was true, and like I said I liked it just fine, even if it didn’t change my life or anything. A few years ago I read this book for the first time as an adult, and I discovered how wrong this wisdom was; it meant much more to me then than it had meant the first time. And now that I’ve read it a couple times more I absolutely, wholeheartedly adore it. Reading a few chapters before school today made my morning. That kid breaks my heart in the most beautiful ways. He really does.

7. Then there was this. In my eleventh grade class today, a kid pointed out a disturbing trend: “In every book we’ve read this year, a woman gets slapped.” We all stopped and thought about it. Desdemona had just been slapped by Othello. Gatsby’s Tom Buchanan slaps his mistress Myrtle (really, he smashes her nose with his open palm). Tea Cake slaps Janie (and her previous husband is also abusive). No women get slapped in Of Mice and Men, but one does get shaken to death. And she’s the only woman in the book, and we never even know her name.

I’m not sure what to do about all this, but it surely doesn’t sit well. There’s no question, for starters, that we need to be teaching more women’s voices in our English classrooms, and that a wider range of voices brings in a wider range of experiences. I know that some schools have done better than others at opening up their curricula, but most places I think this is (still) a slow work in progress. As for this theme of literary slaps: if handled well, it can certainly (but doesn’t necessarily) generate some useful discussion about domestic violence, or about the portrayal of women in the “canon” that still shapes so much of what’s taught. I’ve tried to facilitate some good talks along these lines this year, with varying results. But I don’t think those conversations go far enough in counterbalancing a year’s worth of slapping. The worst slap of them all, by the way–because its author, unlike the others, seems so okay with it–is the one Janie receives from Tea Cake, the love of her life, in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Of all these slapping scenes, this is the only one that was written by a woman. It’s an uncomfortable acceptance of violence near the end of a beautiful book that’s (on most of its pages) empowering and ahead of its time.

It’s tough.

But here’s the part that made me happy: a student noticed the trend and pointed it out today, and got the room all worked up about it before the bell.

So all in all, it was a good day.

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A P. S.: on teenagers, adults, guns, protests, Greek tragedy, and learning to listen…

Speaking of favorite moments in the classroom, a definite highlight of my year–albeit a heavy one–was the series of conversations some of my classes had about gun violence, student walk-outs, and other issues sparked by the Parkland shootings. I won’t go into all that here now, but feel free to ask me about it if you see me around.

What I do want to say here is not political. I don’t especially care what you think about guns. But I do care what you think about teenagers.

I’ve heard and seen so many adults in the last couple of months, especially on social media, bashing student protesters–mostly bashing those Stoneman Douglas kids–for taking a stance on guns. A popular punchline to a hundred memes suggests that “the same kids” who were eating Tide Pods a few weeks ago are demanding gun control this week. Ha, ha: it’s a dumb generation, goes the joke. I was recently sent–because it was supposed to be inspiring–a  viral “open letter” in which a retired schoolteacher somewhere in America patiently explains to the kids of today exactly why they’re wrong. (“This is not a tweet or a text,” the letter begins, thinking condescension an effective way to make teenagers listen. “It’s called a letter; lengthy and substantial. Do you really want to make a difference? … First of all, put down your stupid phone…”) A whole lot of people, meanwhile, have been pointing out that teenagers are too emotional or too uninformed to participate in an important national conversation. Some have claimed that teenagers, unable to think for themselves, have just become pawns in the schemes of liberals or the media, whose opinions they’re brainlessly parroting. The worst extreme of all this, of course, is the sad bunch adults who have publicly attacked these young people in Florida or have cooked up conspiracy theories about those students’ true identities. It’s reprehensible stuff. But even the more benign, apparently well-intentioned forms of this teenager bashing–that open letter, for example–make me furious.

All I want to say is this. If you consider yourself an adult, please: go ahead and think what you’re going to think about guns. But don’t discount or discredit the young people. For the love of God, don’t bully them, and don’t use them as punchlines.

I’d ask you, even, to listen to them. And learn from them, and with them.

Before we started The Catcher in the Rye, my seniors were reading Antigone, an ancient Greek drama and the third installment in Sophocles’s Oedipus trilogy. My favorite character in that play has always been Haimon, the son of the bull-headed king Kreon. This year Haimon’s words seemed more timely than ever. He’s trying to convince his dad to listen to reason, but his dad is incapable of listening to anything or anyone, let alone his own son–a kid.

“Men our age, learn from him?” Kreon sneers. But what if, says Haimon, “I happen to be right? Suppose I am young. Don’t look at my age, look at what I do.

That’s my favorite line in that play. I live in Birmingham, after all, and kids in this town have been known, before, to change the world.

But if you still don’t believe that the kids have something to say–some things we haven’t thought to say, ourselves, and some things we all need to hear–then please: come listen in on my first period class sometime. They will get you straight.

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One more P. S.: recommended reading, listening, and viewing…

Before I sign off, a few recommendations relevant to this post:

A week ago today I got a copy of the wonderful book Syllabus by the great Lynda Barry. For the last seven days it has made my world brighter. I recommend it to anyone whose life could use some creative inspiration.

And speaking of creativity and (see above) of Lawrence Ferlinghetti–as another source of perpetual inspiration I will always recommend Ferlinghetti’s book Poetry as Insurgent Art, which he published at age 88, and which is small enough to fit in your pocket.

And here’s a video of Tom Waits reading “The Laughing Heart” by Bukowski.

(Near our school, by the way, there’s a walking/running path that goes through the woods, and there’s this empty little one-room house just off the path. I heard from some students several years ago that they snuck into the house and the words to this poem were written on the wall.)

Here’s one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

And speaking of how young people in Birmingham changed the world, here is a 40-minute film I show every year to my students, Mighty Times: The Children’s March. Every year it knocks me out. Every person should watch it. If you’re an educator, you can contact the Southern Poverty Law Center for a free copy and teaching materials (or just watch it at the Youtube link above).

Thanks for reading. See you next time.

A message for desolate hearts

For today’s post I mostly want to share a poem I learned today, by Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet. First, a quick backstory. (Skip the story and scroll straight to the poem if you like—I don’t mind!)

Last semester I had in my Creative Writing class an exchange student from Chile—for the sake of this blog, we’ll call him “Nico”—the sweetest, kindest kid you could hope to teach. It was a one-semester deal. His summer just started with the new year, and Friday he goes home; this week he unenrolled from our school. He stopped by today to say goodbye.

It’s one thing when a great kid graduates; you’ll still probably see that kid around, or at least you know it’s a possibility. But when that kid disappears to another hemisphere—that’s a real bummer. It was an emotional goodbye.

My other students are as brokenhearted about it as I am. Once last semester Nico was absent for just one day, and a student insisted we couldn’t go on without him. “He’s the backbone of this class!” she cried. I laughed but demurred. “You’re all the backbone of this class,” I said lamely, and I repeated it and hoped it sounded sincere: “This class has twenty backbones!” I did mean it, mostly. It really is a great group of students, and it’s an appealing metaphor, too—the class as a single freakish organism, made up of many backbones. But we all knew she was right. The day just wasn’t the same.

As it turned out, Nico and I got each other parting gifts. I gave him a copy of Ziggy Stardust; he was really into Bowie’s Blackstar album this year but hadn’t yet heard the stuff that made Bowie famous.

He gave me a Pablo Neruda book, one he had his mom send up from Chile. We’d read some Neruda in class last semester and watched the Italian movie about him, Il Postino. I’d shared with the class, among other things, Neruda’s poem, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines…,” and it made the whole room wonderfully miserable—a triumph for poetry. (I challenged the class to find a better break-up poem or break-up song than that one, anywhere. So far no one has.) We read Neruda’s “Ode to the Tomato” and wrote our own giddy odes to ordinary things. Whenever we’d read Neruda poems in class I’d asked Nico, since he was game, to read the originals out loud in Spanish, and the whole class would sit in attention; then someone would read a translation. I teach Neruda in Creative Writing most years. This year we did more than usual.

The book Nico gave me today was a Chilean edition of a book I’ve never heard of, 20 Poemas al Arbol y un Cactus de la Costa (20 Poems to Trees and a Cactus of the Coast). The poems are printed in Spanish and English, with beautiful illustrations opening each poem, every poem a different tree.

“Those who do not know the Chilean woods,” Neruda writes in a sort of preface, “do not know the planet. From those lands, from that soil and that mud, from that stillness, I have come out to walk, to sing throughout the world.”

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After Nico left today I skipped to the last poem in the book, the “Ode to the Cactus of the Coast.” This is why I’m writing this post, to share a chunk of that poem.

It’s a good poem for any January—and, I think, for this January especially. The year opens not just with a sense of uncertainty but for a lot of us with anxiety and despair and, perhaps, a dangerous sense of depletion. At any rate, I know it was helpful for me to read these lines today. Maybe you’ll find help in them too, for reasons of your own. I plan to reread these words often, whenever I can use them.

The translation is by Mónica Cumar. The poem is a few pages longer than this, but this is how it ends, and how the book ends:

… Thus is the story,
and this
is the moral
of my poem:
wherever
you are, wherever you live,
in the last
solitude in this world,
in the scourge
of the earth’s fury,
in the corner
of humiliations,
brother,
sister,
wait, work
hard
with your little being and your roots.

One day
for you,
for all of us
from
your heart a red ray will burst forth,
you’ll also bloom one morning; the Spring
has not forgotten you, brother,
sister,
no,
it has not forgotten you:
I say it to you
I assure you of that,
because the terrible cactus,
the bristly
son of the sands,
conversing
with me
entrusted me with this message
for your desolate heart.

And now
I tell you
and I tell myself:
brother, sister,
wait,
I am certain:
Spring shall not forget us.

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